A Key Product

I'm planning a Kickstarter to fill an aching gap in the computer market, thanks to Apple.

A bargain, for only $49.95 for the first five million customers. If I get that, there's a stretch goal, the "Millenium Falcon" (tm George Lucas) model at $89.95.

The prototypes are 3-D printed from titanium powder using laser sintering, topped off with artisanally-curated Symbolics LISP keycaps. Actual product may vary, depending on which Chinese rubber novelty sweatshop can give me the best price, just like any other techie Kickstarter project ever.

Fast and Slow

Playing around some more with my New Toy, I added the old nVidia PCI video card back in alongside the ATI Radeon I blunged in last night. The system rebooted itself after detecting the hardware change but came up again with two displays afterwards with no problems. I then added some more utilities such as TightVNC, a remote desktop program I use to control other PCs from my regular desktop PC, while telling it to check for updates since it's a fresh Windows 7 SP1 instance and there were bound to be a few updates ready for it.

Okay, I've got 8 cores and lots of RAM, time to put it under the hammer. I downloaded POVray, the freeware raytracing program and set it up to render one of the standard library scenes, "woodbox" while monitoring the CPU utilisation in the other monitor. Setting the output to be 3840 x 2160 with anti-aliasing on, the 8 cores took up the slack and went to 100% utilisation in Task Manager, and a couple of minutes later it was done. It displays nicely full-screen on my main desktop 4k monitor at that resolution.

Oh, and the updates?

I think I'll leave the New Toy to get on with it...

New Toy (Well, New To Me...)

My eternal quest for MORE POWER!!! on a budget has been temporarily assuaged by the purchase of a second-hand server box from Gumtree for 70 quid. It has two quad-core 2.33GHz Xeons and 16GB of RAM which should be enough for anyone (tm), although a quick perusal on Ebay suggests that a pair of 3.40GHz Xeons wouldn't cost that much, ditto for another 16 GB of RAM. Hmmm...

This server, an Intel-based motherboard in a 2U high chassis dates back to 2009 and is therefore obsolete for regular use in modern data centres mainly because of its power dissipation. The modern trend is to minimise expensive energy consumption for each megaflop of processing power and this server signally fails that benchmark. It makes a fine, if noisy room heater though and winter is coming, as GRRM might say.

When I powered it up for the first time nothing much happened. It turned out to be a problem with the twin redundant power supplies; someone previously had attempted to fit the hot-swap supplies in upside down. They had only achieved this remarkable feat by bending the power module they plugged into internally to the point where they didn't make contact when inserted the right way up. A few whacks with a lump hammer fixed that, and the system powered up. Hurrah!

Did I mention the slight fan noise problem? I SAID, DID I MENTION... Ahem. It quietens down a bit as it goes through the startup procedure, thankfully but it's not the quietest bit of kit on the market. I'll work on that a bit as I plan for this to be a workstation system so noise would be a problem. A hushkit enclosure will be the first step in reducing the noise levels. I may eventually recase the motherboard and fit dedicated heatsinks, doing away with the server fans which cool the entire motherboard.

I added an SSD to the system as I don't have any 3.5" SAS drives, the server's normal hot-swap mass storage option. It's plumbed in loosely at the moment as I get the machine up and working. I installed Linux Cinnamon Mint on it to start with to give it a general checkout but as usual Linux failed me when I tried to fit an old low-profile nVidia FX5200 PCI video card to the system, causing the Mint install to blow out to a command-line prompt and some unhelpful messages after a reboot. Plus ça change, I've never had much luck with Linux in that regard.

Instead I installed Windows 7 Pro from a DVD I had to hand and it Just Worked. No blowout and after I had updated the nVidia drivers (the FX5200 card isn't officially supported under Win 7 but the 64-bit Vista drivers went on without complaint) I could set different resolutions via the GUI and no bloody command-line to be seen.

My next step has been to fit a better video card which I obtained this evening off Gumtree. It's nothing special, an old Radeon 3450 low-profile card but it's a PCI-e card (the older FX5200 card was old-school PCI). The problem is that this server doesn't have full-length x16 PCI-e slots, just a couple of shorter x4 slots and the Radeon video card is x16 as most video cards are. However by cutting out the back of the x4 slot the longer video card will fit although you have to be careful that there's nothing on the motherboard behind the slot that will interfere with the overhanging contact fingers on the card. The socket negotiates with the card and puts it into x1 mode which is slower than full x16 mode but it works fine for my purposes. There are a number of Youtube videos on how to do this slot modification without buggering up the rest of your system although any warranty is well and truly fucked by such actions as you might expect.

So what does 70 quid of server look like?

That's eight cores and 16GB of RAM, idling along but ready for work. My plan is to use this as a wheelhorse system when I'm hammering on graphics or doing renders, accessible via the flat's GigE network as a headless remote workstation. Hand off the workfiles, run some scripts and recover the finished files at my leisure.

Future additions will include more local storage space as the SSD I've got in there is already three quarters full with OS and programs. I'd like to get a couple of fast SAS drives so I can play with setting up a proper RAID store for it (the motherboard has built-in hardware RAID support) but another SSD wouldn't hurt as they're coming down in price quite nicely at the moment. I could easily add another regular spinning-rust SATA drive or two just to tide me over. It could do with some USB 3 ports too, another PCI-e card option for the other x4 slot. I'll think of more stuff later, I expect. The first thing to do is to get the Windows installation fully updated which will take a little time. I may also try to put Windows 10 on it if it meets the compatibility requirements, just because. Now pardon me while I find my ear defenders...

Swords Versus Tanks

Someone I know wanted to write a story around the idea of swords versus tanks, magical weapons against modern military gear but he had to Munchkin the swords and armour to ridiculous levels of magical ability to make it anywhere near an even fight.

The new anime series Gate: Thus the JSDF fought there doesn't try to make swords versus tanks an even fight, instead it turns into a Curb Stomp Battle (TV Tropes). Tortoise-defense shieldwall versus 105/155mm artillery, ouch ouch ouch. Wyverns versus self-propelled anti-aircraft guns, same difference. The only battle in the early part of the story that comes close to even being considered a draw is Giant Flame Dragon versus Panzerfaust and that results in the dragon being driven off, not something the locals have ever seen happen before.

Itami, an 35-year old otaku fanboy desperately trying to get to a special event in the Ginza area of downtown Tokyo has his efforts thwarted by the appearance of a magical gate and an invasion of cod-Roman soldiers and armoured knights accompanied by wyverns and orcs intent on claiming this "new land" for their Empire. Itami helps get refugees away from the invaders and then organises the local police into an ad-hoc defensive line before soldiers from Japan Self Defence Force can get to the area. After that happens, see "Curb Stomp Battle" above. It turns out Itami is a second lieutenant in the JSDF, on leave for the day and he gets the usual reward for doing a good deed, he is promoted to first lieutenant and given more deeds to do...

The JSDF are sent through the Gate which has somehow remained in place even after the invaders were dealt with, to see what's on the other side, figure out how to stop another invasion happening and to arrest the people responsible for the first invasion and get them to pay reparations. Yes, really, arrest them and get them to cough up for the damage, mayhem and loss of life they have caused. It's Japan, deal with it.

What's in the other side of the Gate is the next invasion force, even bigger than the first one with the Empire's vassal states aligned with what's left of the original Empire's armies. Curb Stomp Battle no. 2 results although this time we get to see the battle from the Empire side of things, and it isn't pretty -- the Emperor has fed his vassal's armies into the grinder to prevent them rebelling after his own forces were beaten into a pulp, for one thing.

Now that the Gate has been secured the JSDF sends out reconnaissance patrols to find out the local situation and that's where Itami, our otaku hero comes back into the story, put in charge of a lightly-armed platoon and sent in search of catgirls, uh, intelligence about the indigenous peoples of this magical (literally) land. He doesn't find catgirls...

Gate is based on a manga which is itself written from a light novel series which is a toned-down expansion of a Japanese right-wing militaristic nutter's web novel. At each stage of reinterpretation the gore and violence and xenophobia has been de-emphasised and the fun parts (and there is a lot of humour in this series, sometimes incongruously bookending quite gory and horrific violence) brought more to the fore. Some folks think this anime series is actually underwritten by the JSDF itself as it paints a very rosy picture of their side of things generally. Even if they have I don't think it was someone in the JSDF Public Affairs division who came up with the concept of the grizzled old Top Sergeant shouting "The JSDF has a tradition of fighting monsters!" as they deploy to take on the Flame Dragon.

Plug and Play

I've had an old PDA, a Palm Tungsten E wired up as a background noise generator at the head of my bed for a while now. It plays an "ambient" MP3 track from this site run by Canton Becker and helps me get to sleep at night (as well as masking noise from the neighbours). However for varied and arcane reasons it's not working at the moment (and when I say arcane I MEAN arcane). I "borrowed" another old PDA, an HP iPaq 214 off someone and set it up in the Palm's place but for varied and abstruse reasons it's high-maintenance (and when I say abstruse reasons I MEAN abstruse) and a bother to keep working.

Digging through a junk drawer (one of my many junk drawers, I should add) I came across an old MP3 player I had forgotten about, and figured I could probably rig it as a replacement for my noise-emitting PDA. It's a stick type portable player with a USB plug on the end which allows me to load and delete MP3 files just like a thumb drive, a bit like this one here. It takes a AAA battery to run it though, not actually a problem as I have a ready supply of rechargeable AAAs but it meant I'd have to keep on swapping batteries as it would only run for a few hours at a time on each charge. See "high-maintenance" as mentioned above.

"Ahah!" I said, "I'll bodge it to run off a mains 1.5V supply!" Except there's no socket in the player to accept an external power supply... so I made a dummy AAA cell from some plastic scrap and fitted it into the MP3 player's battery compartment. Hooking up a spare AA battery to the wires from the dummy cell made the MP3 player work. Great! Now all I needed was a 1.5V... power... pack... ummm.

5V power supplies? got plenty. 9V, 12V, 14V, 17V, 25V yep yep yep but nothing with a 1.5V output. I tried diode drops, resistors etc. wired up to a 5V supply but nothing worked for various abstruse and arcane reasons. I thought about building a regulated 1.5V power supply but the only circuits I could find were based around a regulator chip I didn't have, the infamous LM317 adjustable voltage 3-pin regulator device and I didn't want to buy something that I could fake otherwise from what I already had to hand.

It was only after I had another cup of brain stimulant (aka instant coffee) that I remembered this MP3 player had a USB plug... Sure enough, hooking it up to a USB power brick proved it would happily run as an MP3 player while powered via its USB connection so it's now playing ambient noise in the background. Problem solved.

Now all I have to do is find another USB power brick that I can use to charge the PDA...
  • Current Music
  • Tags

Something Amazing Happened in Space Yesterday...

as well as that Pluto flyby thingy that got all the headlines. This was probably more important.

Yesterday at 15:36 GMT an Atlas 5 lifted off from Canaveral carrying a replacement satellite to be added to the existing GPS constellation in preparation for the decommissioning of an older unit in the near future. Ho hum, another successful launch of several tonnes of hardware into space. But there's more...

Just over six hours later at 21:42 an Ariane V was launched from Kourou to put a replacement weather satellite and a commercial direct-broadcast satellite into orbit.

So, it's not just that successful launches are no longer headline news, it's that we're throwing them up at such a rate that the human race can launch two rockets on the same day and it's not a Big Thing.

It's also kind of noteworthy that both launches involved putting a replacement satellite into orbit, not for immediate use but because it was cheaper than storing them on the ground and only fitting them into a launch slot when their predecessors failed as was the usual way in the past.

The Future, we has it. Today (well, yesterday but you know what I mean...)

Bladrerunner: This Time It's Japanese!

Anime can make pretty much anything cute, so when it deals with the futuristic subject of "retiring" replicants a la Bladerunner the moe is dialled up to kyu-ichi (11).

"Plastic Memories" is an anime series currently showing on Japanese TV, set in a future world where Giftias (artificial humans) coexist with people, often acting as substitute family members. The Giftias are time-limited though and after a set period of just under a decade they are repossessed by the manufacturers, sometimes against the owner's will. Exactly why this time limit is so rigidly enforced has yet to be explained properly though. The artificiality of the Giftas is somewhat in doubt since they can eat, drink, bleed and they even need to use the toilet so they seem to be biological rather than mechanical in nature.

Our hero, Tsukasa is a ronin (someone who failed to get into University) who gets a job with the Terminal Services division of SAI Corporation, a major Giftia manufacturer, acting as "spotter" (support person) to the Giftia "marksman" whose job it is to actually recover the Giftia being targetted. He is teamed with Isla, a Giftia who has only a few weeks to go before she herself will be retired, something Tsukasa is kept blissfully unaware of by his officemates who are very protective of her.

Isla is no Deckard, to put it mildly. The only thing hard-boiled about her is the determined expressions she displays just before doing something outrageously klutzy.

This is an odd mix of comedy and tragedy, the sort of thing anime can pull off well sometimes. We see several Giftia recovery operations where the humans are obviously distraught at losing the Giftias they have been attached to for years, mixed in with pratfalls and odd moments of slapstick humour and of course over all of that hangs the time-limitation of Isla's own existence.

Anime and manga have played a lot with the disposable android theme, of course -- there was "Chobits" (loser picks up trashy girl, turns her on) and the similarly time-limited android heroine Mahoro in "Mahoromatic". I'll be interested to see where this goes, the usual pattern is for such a storyline to take a dark and dramatic turn around episode 6 or so. Nojay-Bob he say, check this one out.

New Toy, First Impressions

I've just bought a second-hand HP Stream 7 tablet as a bon voyage present to myself before I fly off to Japan at the beginning of next month.

I've tried a couple of tablets in the past (an Android loaner and a Blackberry Playbook) but couldn't get on with them. The Stream 7 runs full-fat Windows 8.1 OS and it was a lot easier for me to make things work on it coming off using Windows for the past thirty-odd years plus being an early adopter of Windows 8. It was quite easy to set up a Wifi connection after firing up my wifi router (which announces itself to the student-occupied flats around me as a TV Licencing detector van) and connecting to my local network and accessing the shares on my main machine only required me to enter a username and password.

I've installed my favourite video player, CCCP on it and that works as well as the one on my desktop PC allowing for the smaller display (1280x720) compared to my desktop 4k monitor. More experimentation to come; next thing is to see if I can get cabled Ethernet working using a spare Ethernet USB dongle and an OTG cable I have handy. A lot of the places I'll be staying (hotels, hostels etc.) in Japan have good cabled Internet but indifferent Wifi.

Downsides -- The Stream 7 does not have GPS and the rear camera is not that good at only 2MPixels and no stabilisation.

Upsides -- it has a microSD card slot which will accept a 128GB device according to some blogs which means storage expansion is not a problem.

EDIT: it works perfectly well with a USB thumbdrive and a USB keyboard. What I'd like to do is to be able to charge it through a USB hub with a kbd and mouse and network adapter. More experimenting later.

EDIT 2: It works with a wired Ethernet USB adaptor I had to hand, after a bit of tapdancing to get it to accept unsigned drivers since this adapter is somewhat ancient and predated signed drivers. I'm impressed the way sixty quid's worth of tablet PC is keeping up with what I'm throwing at it. I do have the advantage of knowing a lot about Win 8 and being able to find stuff on the Internet when I need to, like the exact sequence of operations needed to use unsigned drivers on Win 8.

Through A Glass Brightly

I decided to make an effort to shoot some pictures of yesterday's eclipse, and that meant SCIENCE!

I'm going to Japan in May and I found a good deal on a small superzoom bridge camera, the Sony Cyber-shot DSC-H300 which serendipitously would a) replace my need for a telescope with its 35x zoom and b) provide a large image courtesy of its 20 megapixel sensor. Of course that range of zoom, small sensor and high pixel count would mean the actual image quality would suffer but I wasn't aiming for detail or colour accuracy particularly.

I built a simple frame to position a welder's helmet green filter glass in front of the camera which, mounted on a solid tripod reduced the amount of light hitting the camera sufficiently to prevent damaging the sensor and generally allowed the camera's autofocus and exposure control to do its job. The filter meant the images turned out green though. A piece of cardboard thumbtacked to the top acted as a sunshield and allowed me to see the camer's display for positioning and focus. I used the self-timer to avoid camera shake as much as possible.

I found a location nearby with no trees in the way and a clear line of sight south at the front of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art along with a number of other eclipse-watchers.

The result (cropped and reduced to 60%)?

Cut for large imageCollapse )

I've edited together a sequence of the shots I managed to take over the entire eclipse, further cropping and reducing them and also converting them to greyscale as the green colour was rather distracting. Clouds rolled in during the eclipse and caused some problems shooting through the gaps when they appeared so the best images I have are from early on in the sequence.
Cut for large imageCollapse )

 I'll try and photograph the Lunar eclipse coming this autumn (six months after this solar eclipse, not coincidentally) and see if I can do better than my last attempt which was with a camera with a much shorter zoom range and smaller pixel count sensor. I won't need a welding filter for that though.